Douglas Edwards: The First and Forgotten Anchor

            I was a shade more than three years old when I first heard the words that gripped the nation every night:  “Good evening everyone from coast to coast……this is Douglas Edwards with the news.”

            Often, I am critical of network television for being too callous about its history.  Much of that comes from focus group research that tells network executives younger audiences don’t know much about broadcast history and—-worse—doesn’t care.

            Last week, CBS News—in the midst of arguably the biggest firestorm over journalism in history—remembered a forgotten legend.  The tribute was way, way overdue.

Edwards            Friday, July 14, CBS observed Douglas Edwards Day.  Thursday night at the end of the CBS Evening News, a 90-second montage of Edwards’ historic pioneering work was shown.  No doubt, a significant number of viewers had no idea who he was or what his role was in network television news.  I did.

            Edwards was called “the inventor of television news anchoring” by no less than one of his successors, Dan Rather.  In 1948, with a limited number of television sets in homes, the network launched CBS TV News with Douglas Edwards at 7:45 p.m. in six Eastern cities.  Edwards had 15 minutes to tell the fledgling video audience what happened in America and the world.

 For the next 14 years, his was the familiar face that informed us of Presidential inaugurations, the Korean War, the development of the Salk polio vaccine, the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and our first suborbital manned space flights.

Edwards 2            His trademark opening “good evening everyone from coast to coast” started in 1951 when the coaxial cable linked the entire country.  The line stuck until his final evening news broadcast in 1962.

           Because of the limited technical resources of the era and the restriction of a 15-minute format (network news did not expand to a half-hour until September 1963), Edwards did not frequently go out on stories himself.  However, he was first to the scene in a helicopter as the SS Andrea Doria sank off the coast of Nantucket in July 1956.  In its day, the coverage was both innovative and dramatic.

 Edwards AndreaEdwards Chopper           For the first 10 years, Edwards was the definitive face of network news.  He constantly outdrew the foppish John Cameron Swayze and his Camel News Caravan on NBC.

           Particularly in the flyover states, Edwards was unbeatable.  A glance back at the local ratings for Douglas Edwards with the News on WRBL in Columbus, Ga., in 1958 showed the CBS quarter-hour in the top ten in the Chattahoochee Valley.

Edwards 1

            I saw Edwards and briefly met him 33 years ago when he gave the keynote address at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in San Antonio.  A portion of his speech was a foreshadowing.

            “With the advent of Cable News Network, CBS and the other broadcast networks are no longer alone as voices in broadcast journalism,” he said.  “As technology advances and the capability of live coverage expands, the field is open for other voices to enter the field.” 

            At the time, we had no idea what online technology would mean but Edwards’ words had a touch of a crystal ball ring.

            Broadcast news historians, such as I am, were shocked when the announcement was made in the spring of 1962 that Edwards would be replaced on the CBS Evening News by Walter Cronkite.

Edwards Cronkite Rather            Many books on CBS News have suggested that Edwards lost the anchor slot because he failed to aggressively become as much of a journalist as he was a news reader.  That is as much baloney as what’s in the packaged meat counter at Publix.

Still other accounts knocked him because of his moonlighting into entertainment formats.  In the summer of 1952, Edwards presided over the panel game show Masquerade Party.  For five years, he was the host and narrator of CBS’ Armstrong Circle Theater, an alternate week series of live and taped dramas.

He was not alone in reaching across the aisle from the newsroom.  The erudite commentator Eric Sevareid served as a substitute host on a panel game.  Cronkite, unbeknownst to many viewers, was host of the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game show It’s News to Me in the summer of 1955.  Before he became the central figure of 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace had a career as the host of three game shows—including the big-money $100,000 Big Surprise.  Wallace also did the pilot for To Tell the Truth under a different title.  The father of broadcast news Edward R. Murrow spent six years as host of a popular Friday night CBS celebrity interview show, Person to Person.  In an era where network news salaries were suppressed, news personalities took crossover roles because the pay was better.  The public perception that news and entertainment were rigid, uncrossable tentpoles did not solidify until the decade when Cronkite assumed the reins of the Evening News.

As for Armstrong Circle Theater, which aired every other Wednesday at 10 on CBS, I submit the series did not compromise Edwards’ credibility.  Every play on Circle Theater was a docudrama based on current issues in the news, such as corruption in the coin-operated jukebox industry, emotional difficulties created by a divided Germany, the effects of compulsive gambling and the influx of heroin into large American cities.  At the end of many of the dramas, Edwards conducted a news-themed interview with an expert analyst on the subject matter.  Though scripted drama, one can argue that Edwards gave Circle Theater added credibility and delved into serious issues in a perspective that a 15-minute news format of the era could not.

Edwards with the News              As for pure journalism, Edwards had plenty of experience.  Exhibit A:  from 1942 to 1948, he was a correspondent for CBS Radio.  He reported on a number of fronts during World War II.

             Exhibit B:  in 1948, Edwards anchored the first television coverage of all three conventions.  He was there with the Democrats (who re-nominated Harry Truman), GOP (which went with Tom Dewey) and the Progressives (who chose Henry Wallace).

             Edwards, for reasons only CBS News executives of the era knew, was not included in the network’s convention coverage in future quadrenniums.  Cronkite was always at the helm for the Presidential selection weeks from 1952 to 1980.  At the 1956 conventions, Cronkite was anointed as “anchorman” for the first time.  We needed another decade before the term “anchor” became a verb in the industry.

              The truth is:  in 1960, a turn occurred in something that drives all of television—-ratings.  The climb for Edwards’ evening opponents was a gradual one.

Huntley Brinkley              In 1956, NBC chose to pair two correspondents who had never previously worked together—-Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.  Huntley’s looser style and Brinkley’s dry wit struck a chord with viewers.  Anxious to move on from Swayze, The Huntley-Brinkley Report was born in late 1956.

 The NBC pair were not an immediate hit.  Gradually, their conversational style and tag line of “Goodnight, Chet.  Goodnight, David” began to attach to viewers.  They began to inch up on Edwards’ ratings.  By the end of 1959, Huntley-Brinkley slid ahead of Douglas Edwards with the News.

            In Gary Paul Gates’ 1982 book “Air Time:  The Inside Story of CBS News,” the author suggested Edwards began to feel the strain as Huntley-Brinkley week by week took an even larger lead that culminated in his departure in 1962.  Gates outlined that instead of working harder professionally to improve his broadcast, Edwards succumbed to drinking more.  Most of the sources for the that assertion were unnamed.

            Gates wrote that on the day the switch to Cronkite was announced, Edwards came out of his office and extended his hand to Cronkite and offered him congratulations.  “That was the classiest move I’ve ever seen from anyone,” Cronkite said.

Edwards 1960             Douglas Edwards did not suddenly deteriorate into a poor news commentator because he began losing the Nielsens to Huntley and Brinkley.   If anything, viewer tastes began to change from the straightforward style and presentation of Edwards and CBS News to the looser, faster-moving performance of NBC’s dual anchor format.  Further, NBC gave both Huntley and Brinkley separate prime time, though low-rated, half-hours that expanded their reach with news viewers.

Arguably, Edwards may have suffered from CBS News’ decision to make Cronkite the face and voice of big news events:  election night, conventions, and manned space shots.  I used that example when ABC News made the decision to anoint David Muir as the anchor for World News but declared George Stephanopoulos would be the lead for all major breaking coverage.  We can only guess whether Edwards would have developed the same reputation as the most trusted man in America had he been assigned the major coverage Cronkite assumed.

Edwards may have been professionally humiliated by his demotion but he did not take his toys or his talents to another network.  He never complained in the media.  Not once did he express any bitterness toward CBS or Cronkite.  He displayed some of the finest character ever shown by a television journalist who had been demoted from one of the most influential assignments in television news.

I have no recriminations,” Edwards told The Christian Science Monitor. “I leave with no pique, no sadness.”

 Edwards Newsbreak           Only 45, Edwards was relegated to a five-minute newsbreak, The CBS Afternoon News with Douglas Edwards, immediately after daytime To Tell the Truth.  He held that spot he held onto until his retirement in 1988, though the interstitial eventually retracted to two minutes and then one and moved to late mornings after Love of Life.  At the outset of his Evening News exit, he anchored local early and late evening news on New York’s WCBS.  Eventually, he took over The World Tonight, the CBS Radio flagship evening newscast.

            Cronkite did not forget his predecessor on the day he passed the baton to Dan Rather in 1981.  “For 14 years before I was in this chair, it was manned by Doug Edwards—-a great broadcaster,” Cronkite told his audience.  

            During his 1984 speech in San Antonio, Edwards displayed a sense of humor rarely shown on the air.  He told a story of a week in 1960 when Harry Reasoner substituted for Edwards on the evening news.

            “Harry was getting close to the end of the first segment when the floor director started giving him a signal that meant stretch (extend) because of a problem that had developed,” Edwards said.

            Reasoner kept reading.  “Harry didn’t know but the problem was in the control room,” Edwards said.  “The producer was told the commercials had to be switched for the first break.  That’s because the first scheduled commercial opened with two women.  One of them said to the other:  ‘Harry needs a laxative.’”  The usually staid, starched-collar group of news directors roared.

            CNN made a big pitch to steal away Edwards as the lead anchor when the network launched in 1980.  Broadcasting reported he seriously considered it until then-CBS News president Bill Leonard said, “Doug, I can’t let you go,”  His pay was significantly increased to remain for the duration of his career at CBS.

I often wondered what CNN’s image would have been at the outset if the man who invented television news anchoring was the central face of cable’s first 24-hour news network.  I submit he would have been brilliant and re-energized his career.

Edwards FOT             For my money, one of Edwards’ finest assignments was toward the end of his career on a broadcast few people saw.  For more than 20 years, Sunday morning television on CBS was headlined by Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live, both of which viewed religion—-television news’ worst-covered and most misunderstood element of American life—-through drama, music and discussions from elitist theologians and college professors.

In the ’80s, Edwards assumed the helm of For Our Times, a contemporary look at religion in America.  The format took on a newsmagazine style and explored serious issues affecting Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations.  The broadcast was well-produced.  Edwards did a solid job of weaving together the threads and interviewing key analysts with expertise on the stories.  The entire package was remarkably similar to public television’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

Unfortunately, the audience was miniscule watching For Our Times.  Offered largely as a public service filler to stations, the Edwards half-hour aired all over the local Sunday schedules across the country.  The CBS affiliate at which I worked in 1982-83, WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C., scheduled For Our Times at 12:45 a.m. Monday mornings.  Some CBS affiliates chose not to carry the broadcast at all.

 Edwards Desk           July 14, Douglas Edwards would have been 100 years old.  He died in 1990 at the age of 73.  He did not live to see the impact of the internet and social media on television news.  He never saw cable news turn into prime time verbal versions of pro wrestling.  He missed the screaming charges of “fake news.”

             What he did was leave a legacy by writing the rules for television news broadcasting at a time when no rules existed.  For the entire 1950s, a domestically calmer but internationally turbulent era, he told us what happened in the world and who was affected in that slither of 15 minutes. 

             Sadly, he is somewhat the forgotten anchor of television news.  Yet, for those of us who were viewers when he was in that chair surrounded by that primitive set, we remember.  

            When Douglas Edwards was there just after sunset, we all felt a little better about the world.  When he said, “Good evening everyone from coast to coast,” we had the idea that he was talking just to us.  He was.

             Someone had to be first in that chair so others could be next.  I hope another 100 years don’t elapse before CBS News offers him another tip of the cap. 

Edwards’ last broadcast for CBS can be viewed at https://youtu.be/LZWVUXA1qbg.

            The CBS News tribute to Edwards is online at https://youtu.be/XC38imRgo_k

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It’s National Hug a News Person Day….So Why Not Do It?

The catchy trend on Twitter is to declare national days in honor of a favorite event, person, fictional character, or food.  Some of them click.  Some of them roll over like a dog who just wants to go to sleep.

I know from experience.  I have declared the last two October 4ths as #NationalWardCleaverDay after my favorite TV dad of all time.  I think that one received six likes and two retweets.  I don’t care if it’s none and none.  I will observe #NationalWardCleaverDay this coming October 4th on the 60th anniversary of Leave It to Beaver.

A small group online have suggested we take the premiere date of Captain Kangaroo and declare the first #NationalMrGreenJeansDay this fall.  If you grew up with The Captain, how could you not love Mr. Green Jeans, who was a master of all farm animals and inventions?

That brings me to a slowly expanding online phenomenon of April 4.  I wish #Nationalhuganewspersonday had been around in the mid-1970s when I started in TV news.  Some days, a kind word was so elusive that I thought the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before I heard encouragement in my newsroom.  That was in the place where the news director/anchor once said in a staff meeting:  “You people are an extension of my arms to get to the places I can’t.  I would do it myself if I could but you’re here to carry out my mission.”  That was surely motivational.

Action 9 News Ad

In the location above, didn’t we all look young, vibrant, energetic, alive, and full of TV hair?  I almost cried when I uncovered this TV Guide ad last weekend for the first time in years.  I wondered, “Where did all my hair go?”  Then, I remembered I now have 15 fewer minutes needed to make those locks lay down.  

WTVM was actually a fun newsroom in which to work.  While we didn’t hug each other every day, we had far more virtual hugs and verbal cheers for each other.  We even laughed on a frequent basis, unlike some newsrooms where the temperature is often at the level of an Amana side-by-side.

Here’s the scoop:  especially in the smaller 125 markets, young people work hard every day to inform you and make the kinds of salaries that often cause them to struggle to make ends meet.  They are on call 24/7 for breaking stories, such as the one this morning in Orlando (and a few other cities) when tornado warnings were issued.  They work in a field which can strain relationships or social lives because of unorthodox schedules in which they work.  Try going in at 11:30 p.m. or 12 midnight to produce a morning show that can last as long as six hours in some cities.  When you accept a job in any television newsroom, you are rolling the dice.  You may be working for an encourager who truly cares about people as people, or you may be under the domain of a total autocrat who gives the impression of caring about nothing in life but what goes on the early evening news.

Here’s another scoop:  a significant number of people who contribute to your favorite local newscast every night are ones you never see.  When I tweeted today about #Nationalhuganewspersonday, I reminded people of the many producers, assignment editors, videographers, editors, directors, audio engineers and studio camera operators whose job it is to make a newscast and the people who deliver the information look good every night.  All too often, the news to viewers is only the people they see on camera.  When Lou Grant, Mary Richards and every one of the regular members of the WJM News staff were fired on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that group hug in which the gang all trotted together to grab tissues was one of the most hilarious physical comedy scenes ever.  Yet, where were the support personnel who made possible for them to do their jobs.

They deal some days with folks who are not very nice people.  Whoa be it answering a phone when a viewer calls enraged about a story which aired, even though that news watcher did not listen carefully and may have the facts out of context.  The news person’s skin has to be tougher than an overtanned sun worshiper’s face.

I hear some of you, including some veteran executives in the news business.  Some of you are saying, “What a silly thing to observe a day to hug a news person.”  Is it?

I read the accounts of former WDBJ (Roanoke, Va.) general manager Jeffrey Marks in the hours after reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward were shot to death during a live segment.  Marks gathered his staff together.  Spontaneously they sang “Amazing Grace” together and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Marks told reporters:  “I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family.  What can you do except bring people together?”

His news director said she began doing something she had never done before.  She began telling members of her staff she loved them.  Granted, if your staff has not experienced a cruel and inhumane loss of co-workers, you are not likely to tell your people you love them.  However, the sentiment, caring and sincerity are what count.

I recall 15 years ago when I was an RTNDA (before the acronym changed) Fellow.  One of my colleagues was assigned to serve his fellowship in a New England station.  He was told early on by the news director, “If I haven’t made a female cry at least once a week, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”  Yes, that was the culture in that newsroom.  I hope that management philosophy has changed, but I suspect we have a few news operations where that culture, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, prevails.

Sure, #Nationalhuganewspersonday is a fun creation of social media.  Yet, I find that unofficial observation playing into an important need in a highly stressful profession.  People in any line of work need reinforcement, encouragement and yes, at times, a small bit of love.  As deadline-driven and demanding as broadcast journalism is, if its practitioners are constantly in a den of negativity, that will create negative reinforcement, self-doubt and a reluctance to expand creative skills for fear of creating an eruption from temperamental bosses.

Dr. Brhett McCabe, a sports psychologist, recently said on The Paul Finebaum Show:   “Everything we experience is a big deal to us.  Performance anxiety is normal.  There’s a little voice inside that makes us worry about outcomes, rather than deliver outcomes.  That’s a little bit of a trap that keeps saying I have got to prevent mistakes from happening.”

 

So, if you work in a TV newsroom, put #Nationalhuganewspersonday into practice, at least for today.  Even if you’re not a hugger, at least offer a kind word or an ounce of encouragement to a co-worker—even if it’s one with whom you don’t particularly get along.  If you are married to a news person or are in a personal relationship with a journalist, make sure you give them a solid hug today as a reminder that what he or she does matters.  If you are a viewer, drop a positive email or a tweet to a favorite newscaster before midnight.  You may not see the smile on that journalist’s face, but—believe me—that will happen.

To all of you who toil on deadline every day to bring us information that is live….local….late-breaking, here is a virtual hug from The Old TV News Coach.  The same goes to all of you who once gave of yourselves in the industry and are now classified as retired.  I may not know many of you, but I definitely appreciate you.